Hitchcock Coheed had earned a private pilot’s license when he was 16 years old, a degree in electrical engineering when he was 22, a contractor’s license (as an electrician) when he was 26, a marriage license at 27 and at 28 he signed on to his bride’s idea to pack up and seek their fortune in California. A year later he washed up in Litter Bay clinging to a beat Toyota pickup and a toolbox full of tools. His lovely bride was somewhere else, scores of miles inland he guessed, but who knew. Fifteen years later, he still has no idea.
It’s mid-morning in early summer and Coheed is under Jane McClatchy’s house replacing a section of copper tubing – the cold water feed to the bathroom, in fact, which had sprouted a leak where someone had done a bad job brazing. Jane McClatchy was semi-retired from teaching up at the College and had been Coheed’s second client. Over the years he had installed a new stove-top and range, re-wired the garage and later converted it into a bedroom for Will McClatchy, Jane’s son from her first marriage, patched up cracks in the stucco siding, laid stone pavers in the backyard patio, replaced the smoke alarms, and so on. Sometimes she called when she needed a lightbulb changed, especially now that all three children were either away at college, or temporarily out of the house, trying to make it on their own. Coheed had watched them all grow up. And he had watched as her second marriage finally collapsed. He had seen it coming.
“My husband says these old light fixtures can’t be repaired,” she had said.
She stood on the front porch and her husband leaned against a low stucco wall that served as the rail. He glowered at her.
“But one of my colleagues at State says you can repair anything electrical.”
“That’s true,” Coheed said, “I can.”
“Well show us then,” she said.
Her husband had followed Coheed around the house as he removed each exterior fixture and taped up the wires and stuffed them back into their junction boxes. The husband didn’t say a word, and neither did Coheed. A couple days later when Coheed returned with the fixtures freshly painted and re-wired inside, Jane wasn’t around, but her husband was and just as before, neither man said a word. When it was done, the husband handed Coheed an envelope containing the check. Later she called to thank him.
Today’s piping job is an easy one, it’s all pressure fittings these days, but had it been for anyone else, he would have charged double. Triple maybe. He doesn’t like crawling under houses, especially when leaky plumbing is involved. Rolling around in the muck. Spiders and dark corners. Stuff you never wanted to see or smell or think about. Technically he’s still married. At least as far as he knows he is. He’s never seen any paperwork on it one way or another. She had gone to her job in the Valley one morning, and she never came back.
Jane’s waiting for him on the front porch when he emerges from the crawlspace. Sandy mud is smudged across his forehead and up into the tangle of red-blond hair beyond his widow’s peaks. “I think you won’t have any problems with that pipe anymore,” he says. “But there’s a lot of moisture down there. And some dry rot because it’s been wet down there for a long time.” His coveralls are caked with that sandy mud. Standing in the shade in the sideyard he unzips and begins unpeeling his coveralls.
“And termites. That’s usual for here.”
“It’s an old house,” she says.
“It’s pretty new in a lot of places. Ask me how I know.”
She smiles and asks if he’d like a glass of ice water or lemonade. “It’s no trouble. I can mix some right up.” She has always asked and he has always said no. He hadn’t thought of his wife in a long time before today.
“What I’d really like is a cold beer.” He rolls up his coveralls and sets the muddy bundle near his toolbox. The girls at the laundry aren’t going to be happy to see him.
“Oh? Will warm red wine do?”
“With ice it will.”
When Coheed returns from stowing his tools and extra parts in the pickup, Jane’s in one of the two porch chairs that flank a little wooden cafe table. There’s a Collins glass topped with ice cubes in front of the empty chair, and an empty juice glass near Jane. In between is the bottle and an opener and underneath is the envelope with his check.
“I guess I’ll open it.”
She smiles and after he sets the cork aside, she reaches for the bottle. “I’ll pour.”
Later, as he pulls the front door closed with the barest ‘click,’ he sees the empty bottle resting on the envelope, the shadow of it falling across the tabletop. There’s a half-crescent wine stain curling around one corner of the envelope, the paper puckered from the moisture. He picks it up and taps the stained corner against his brow where he can feel the crease tick into skin and dun-dun-dun against bone beneath and then he slides it under Jane’s front door.
This, he thinks, is a complication he should have considered earlier.